35: Recording Bass Part 2: Capturing the Perfect Bass Tone

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Last week, Ben took us on a journey of bass tone discovery. We looked at many of the components that go into a final bass tone and talked about the parameters we can play with to affect our tone.

This week we dive deep into the various recording techniques and how they affect our tone. We also talk about a methodical approach for testing a mult-speaker and multi-mic setup to ensure you’re capturing the best tone possible.

In this episode you will learn:

  • Ben’s tone pyramid in detail
  • The importance of capturing a DI and why it can have a totally different purpose than capturing a DI for guitars
  • When having new strings is critical and when it may be optional
  • Why it’s important to test the sound of all of the speakers in your cabinet and how to do methodically
  • What a good DI sounds like
  • How to listen to tones off of different speakers and assess them
  • Which mics work well on bass cabinets and why mic choice may be less important than you think
  • How to blend different captured sounds to create a bass tone with the best of all worlds
  • And more!

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We encourage you to listen to the episode because there are audio examples that are worth a thousand words. However, the detailed episode notes are below for your perusal.

Recording Bass

To start, let’s cover the similarities and differences between recording bass and recording guitar – which we covered recently (at least for heavy guitars) in Episode 33.

Similarities to Guitar:

  • We always want to capture a DI track in addition to our amped/effected track – although the reasons for capturing a bass DI are even more important than the reasons for guitars as we’ll soon see.
  • The techniques and strategies for miking a speaker are pretty much the same
  • Most of the time we’ll want to use new strings for our recording to get the tightest, clearest and brightest sound we can
  • The signal chain will be similar – though not identical

Differences from Guitar:

  • The DI we capture may actually be used in the final mix. On guitar, we would likely only use the DI to reamp (in other words, use the DI to record a different signal chain than we used originally).
  • As we’ll soon see, for bass, we may want to split our signal and process the low frequencies differently than the high frequencies.
  • For guitar, compression is an optional and very specific tool. For bass, it is almost mandatory.
  • For guitars, dialing in the tone is an important part of “defining” the genre we’re playing in. For bass, tone is more of an ad hoc consideration. In other words, we will pick the tone that suits and complements our song – rather than picking a tone we like and then building the other tones in the song around that.

Alright, this list should help you parse through how this week’s discussion will differ from Episode 33 – Recording Heavy Guitars.

Before we dive in deeper, let’s think about the role of the bass guitar in the mix.

We always want to approach our process from a “first principles” approach by thinking about our goal and only then thinking about the parameters we can play with to get to our goal.

The Role of the Bass in the Final Mix

  1. The Cornerstone of the Mix: Does that sound overly dramatic? Well, I’m not just saying it because Ben said it in the episode. Most of the time, the bass is the foundation of a song. The solidity of the low end can make or break a song and the bass is holding down the low end. So yes, it is that important. Just think about any song you’d hear on the radio. For almost any genre the low end will be thick, solid and consistent.
  2. Set the Rhythm: Ok, yes it’s secondary to drums in most cases but a bass line locked in groove matrimony with a drum kit will let listeners forgive almost any other transgression – like mediocre vocals and guitar performances.
  3. Low End Extension of Guitars: This is especially true for heavier rock genres. Have you ever listened to a heavier rock song and wondered if you could actually hear the bass? The answer is yes! If you listened to Episode 32, you heard the example of the heavy riff with and without the bass. Oftentimes the two are acting as one instrument with the bass providing the clarity and thickness of the bottom end – something the guitar can’t do because it’s really not designed to represent those frequencies.
  4. Melodic Instrument: In many cases, the bassline is adding an important melodic component. Ben refers to the bass as “acting as the bridge between the rhythmic and melodic elements of a a song” and this is a nice way of putting it.

Alright, with that established let’s get into specific recording tips

Instrument Setup

    • Fresh Strings: This is very important – especially in heavier genres. This differences between old strings and new strings will be stark. New strings will have a brightness, crispness and output that will generally give you better results with less processing. There are exceptions. If you’re playing in a genre like R&B or hip-hop and you want a very “subby” tone with not much articulation at the top, then old strings will serve you just fine. In general, err on the side of fresh strings. They will give you the most to work with. And, yes we know that bass strings are expensive but think about it this way: if I told you people (including you) would be coming back to this recording for years to come and you could spend $50 to make it sound better, would you say that was a worthwhile investment?
    • Mind Your Knobs: Pick a consistent position for all of your knobs (on the guitar, on your pedals and on your amp) to make sure that your recording is consistent from take to take. It’s also a good idea to jot down your settings in a notebook in case you want to recreate the sound at a later date. You think you’ll remember (I know I always do), but you won’t (I know I always don’t).
    • Check Your Setup: Make sure your instrument is set up properly – Refer to Episode 31 for more notes on this. Things like intonation, string height, etc., are relatively easy and quick to fix. They will also help you get better sounding performances.

Setting up that DI

    • DI Refresher: DI stands for “Direct Inject” and it basically describes the idea of capturing the raw signal coming directly out of the bass guitar. There are a number of ways to do this but the most common was is by using something called a DI box.
    • Using a DI Box: A DI box in this context can be thought is a signal splitter. It has one input and two outputs. You plug your bass directly into the DI box input. Then you can plug one of the outputs directly into a channel on your audio interface and the other output into your pedal board or amplifier. By the way, you don’t NEED a DI box for record bass. Most audio interfaces will have something called a “high impedance” or “Hi-Z” input that you can plug a bass directly into. Some people like the tone certain Dis impart but, again, you do NOT need to buy if you’re goal is just to record the direct signal off the bass. Just plug it in straight into the Hi Z input or an input that has an “instrument” selector switch option.

Microphone selection

Different mics will have different characteristics. However, we would encourage you to start with whatever mic you have – especially if it’s a dynamic mic – and see what results you’re getting. If you have multiple mics, you can do a quick “shoot-out” to see which one you prefer. Again, mics absolutely play an important role in determining the sound you capture but we can manipulate other parameters in our chain to compensate for something like “a tone that’s too dark” and we would encourage you to squeeze the maximum mileage out of your current mics before buying a new one.

If you don’t currently own a mic, go with a dynamic microphone with a cardioid polar pattern. That will make it easiest for you to get good workable results.

In this week’s episode you will hear actual examples of different mics and different mic positions that Ben used during his recent session. Listening carefully in headphones will be a great way to get familiar with what good tones can sound like.

Ben used a Shure Beta 52 dynamic microphone and a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone in his examples.

Microphone placement

    1. Before we even decide where to place our microphone in relation to a speaker, we will need to decide which speaker to place it in front of. Ben’s cabinet had 5 speakers. To start, he placed the Shure SM57 microphone in the dead center of each speaker (one at a time) and recorded the sound coming off of each one. His goal was to find the best sounding speaker. This may sound strange but the speakers will actually sound slightly different from each other. The good news is that this is not something you have to do every time you record. Once you find the best sounding speaker in your cabinet, you can usually just go directly to it – though it can be interesting to redo this test every now and then to make sure you’re still using the speaker you prefer most.
    2. Now that you’ve selected a speaker, the next step is to select how close to the center of the speaker you want your microphone to be. The closer to the center of the speaker you place your microphone, the “brighter” and more “trebly” the sound will be. As you move outward towards the edge of the speaker, the sound will get darker and bassier. A nice starting point to place the microphone at the edge of the dust cap (the edge of the little circle inside the larger circle of the speaker) and then adjust from there. Want it brighter? Move it closer to the center.
    3. Once you’re satisfied with the brightness/darkness, you can adjust how far or close the microphone is to the speaker. This may take some experimentation but generally speaking, moving a cardioid polar pattern microphone closer to the speaker will give you an exaggerated bass response or more “boominess”. Moving farther way will give you a tamer boominess. Once you’re more than 10 inches away, the characteristics will change further because you will start picking up more and more of the speaker – which could also give a nice result!

Multi-Mic Techniques

There is nothing wrong with using only one mic and that will be the easiest way to get workable results. However, sometimes using a second mic can allow for some tonal flexibility. For example, you may really like the high end growl that a Shure SM57 gets right in the center of the mic but you may also really like the huge low end of a Beta 52 out at the edge of the speaker. Both of these mics/positions alone seem to lack something but combining them can give you something you love! It’s worth playing around with this if you have multiple mics but, again, it’s not necessary and plenty of records have been made using only a single microphone on a cabinet.

What about that DI?

Ah yes! The DI! The DI signal off the bass will have more frequency content than any microphone by itself. With a DI you’re truly getting the full frequency spectrum coming off of the instrument without an EQ or filters inherent to amps, pedals and microphones. This can be useful to blend in later with the mic’d signals. For example, you can blend in some DI to help get a clean low end where your bass amp may have imparted some distortion. Once you have your mic’d audio, play around with pulling the fader up on the DI to see what happens to the tone. You may find that the DI alone is too “thin” or “sterile” sounding but that the mics alone do not have a tight or clear enough low end. If that’s the case, blending the two can yield a nice result.

If you have any questions, you can always email us vadim@diyrecordingguys.com and ben@diyrecordingguys.com

Vadim Kharaz

Vadim Kharaz mixes and produces music through his studio Calm Frog Recording.

He co-hosts the DIY Recording Guys podcast with Benjamin Hull because he knows that with a bit of knowledge and minimal gear, it’s possible for DIY musicians everywhere to get pro-quality recordings.